400px-Kamala_Harris_Official_Attorney_General_PhotoYes, I’m glad that the president apologized.

Kamala Harris was one of the first people I noticed when I went to work as an editor for Women’s Voices for Change. In 2008, I featured this MORE magazine profile, which called the then–San Francisco prosecutor “the female Obama” and hinted that her next destination might be the governor’s mansion.

Then and now, few journalists, including me, could miss what Harris looks like—striking by any standard. But very few have made a major point of it: not MORE‘s Karen Breslau back then, nor most of the reporters who’ve covered Harris since, especially after 2010, when she became the first female, the first African-American, and the first Indian-American chief law enforcement officer in the country’s most populous state.

Which may be why President Obama seemed not to think he was doing anything wrong when, speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser last week, he introduced his law-school peer as “the best-looking attorney general in the country.”  But he knew when he said it that it could be considered sexist: He started by saying that “You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough,” laying on the praise to make way for his laugh line about how ‘”good-looking” she is. To me, all of that “You have to be careful to first say” praise sounded like one of those cover phrases, a sort of “I’m not a sexist, but . . .” Drawing attention to her looks, according to a study released just yesterday by Women’s Media Center, has also been proven to diminish the status of any female politician, whether Sarah Palin or New York City’s Christine Quinn.

Outrage about the president’s statement was widespread, despite comments in the president’s defense from The Washington Post to The Root. Janice Armstrong wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News, “When you’re trying to get ahead based on your skills and abilities, constantly having people comment on your looks can be deflating. It gets old.”

Mediaite summarizes the feminist responses, including Irin Carmon at Salon, who noted that “women’s looks are considered public property, to be commented on, uninvited, whether it’s on the street, in a job interview, or in the press. Many people find it quite easy to do, many of them men, and many people who should know better, like Barack Obama. At the Grio, Zerlina Maxwell agreed: “Adding her looks to a list of adjectives describing her talent diminishes her accomplishments, even if the president said it in an off-the-cuff passing comment.  Harris should be praised for her record, not her physical allure.  Women are not objects who simply exist for male commodification.”  And Slate pointed us to recent research about “benevolent sexism,” quoting social psychologist Melanie Tannenbaum:  “Although it is tempting to brush this experience off as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent, ‘benevolent sexism’ is both real and insidiously dangerous.”

That “benevolent sexism” includes those who dismissed the president’s remark as harmless, and professed outrage that anyone would object to a “compliment” they see as something “any guy” might say. But, Obama’s “first you have to say” formulation notwithstanding, he knows it was unprofessional—and unbecoming of a president who has so often made women’s rights  a high priority. I salute the apology, and thank the army of bloggers and Tweeters who evoked it.


Harris on Candy Crowley’s State of the Union, this week.

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  • Nancy Weber April 10, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Bold earrings, necklace and u-neck shirt making the most of radiant skin,eyebrows perfectly groomed, mascara layered on, flashing smile: Here’s a person who makes us a gift of her physical beauty. Is it really wrong to thank her? The compliment-phobic have begun to approach dark religiosity. A woman’s face should not be looked at? If inadvertently glimpsed, must not be enjoyed? In the name of feminism, they are minutes away from demanding the veil I’m frightened.

  • Pat Thompson April 9, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Well said. I am so happy to hear about the Women’s Media Center study, because it clearly shows that these kinds of comments are not harmless.